Vidya Balan: Usually, male superstars are not willing to share equal space

Vidya Balan, Akshay Kumar, and the Mission Mangal team talk about Jagan Shakti’s cinematic salute to the men and women behind ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission
Vidya Balan: Usually, male superstars are not willing to share equal space

The Mangalyaan space probe entered the Martian orbit on September 24, 2014. Conducted by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the project’s fruition made history for India. We became the first Asian country to achieve the feat and the first in the world to do so in one attempt.

Even more significant was the mission’s staggeringly low budget (around Rs 450 crore), the lowest ever for a Mars mission, and far below the budget of Hollywood blockbuster Gravity, as was pointed out at the time. But for director Jagan Shakti, whose sister works at ISRO, the achievement went beyond numerics. “It's a story of how ordinary men and women, who take the same bus as we do and buy vegetables with us, are capable of being extraordinary,” he says.

Jagan salutes the human victory of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in his debut film, Mission Mangal. Ambitiously cast and produced, the project looks too risky to be handed over to a first-timer (one recent exception was Uri: The Surgical Strike, a muscular production helmed by newcomer Aditya Dhar). Jagan sounds confident about his grip on the subject, as well as the technical know-how of making a space movie. “ISRO was helpful in terms of giving us access to the material and scientists,” he says, “The right balance between art director and VFX helped us design the rocket, which was the most important component of the film. While we had the exact diagrams in possession, we couldn't have designed a similar-looking device.”

Though certain arcs have been fictionalised, lead actor Akshay Kumar assures 80-90 per cent of the film is based on facts. He hopes after watching the film, Indian scientists would be inspired to work for their country, instead of migrating to NASA. The actor feels the Indian government is directing renewed attention to space exploration. “Earlier, 2-3 per cent of government budgets were allocated to space science. Now they have increased it to 18. That’s why so many things are going on. Everyone is talking about Chandrayaan. ISRO has become more famous, though it has existed for the last fifty years.”

Another positive change, Akshay observes, is the fading away of gender prejudices. “Becoming a scientist was once considered a male pursuit. Girls were discouraged from joining the profession. The same applied to engineering and police services. Today, those things have changed. That’s why we show in the film that it doesn’t matter what your gender is. A girl, too, can become a great scientist.”

Posters of Mission Mangal were criticised for allotting more space to Akshay, a popular male actor, instead of his female co-stars. Vidya Balan, who plays Project Director Tara Shinde in the film, argues that the story isn’t only about women scientists. “This mission had an equal contribution from men and women. It’s great that a woman’s contribution is at least being acknowledged. It’s not fair to say that this film ‘needs’ an Akshay Kumar. It’s great that an Akshay Kumar has done this film, despite knowing that women have equal space in it. Because normally, (male superstars) are not even willing to share equal space. But Akshay has not only acted in the film but produced it too.”

Mission Mangal marks the Bollywood debut of Nithya Menen. The Southern star plays Varsha Pillai, a satellite designer tasked with making a budget-efficient payload. Nithya says she didn’t have apprehensions about working with an ensemble cast for her first Hindi film. “An actor should be smaller than the film. On every project, I think of my character not in terms of screen space but what is her significance in the story.”

Besides Mission Mangal, Nithya will also be seen in the upcoming Hindi web-show Breathe 2. “I recognise that it is a good time for me to be here (in Bollywood). More than films, I feel OTT is my space, because it is completely content-driven. You can be as subtle as you want. There’s no need to compromise or dumb things down.” 

Taapsee Pannu portrays a navigation scientist in Mission Mangal. She is paired opposite Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays an army officer. “A husband and a wife are both working for the nation. But because my character is a woman, her relationship with her work is different. That’s the dynamic that will be explored in the film.”

On female actors reclaiming strong roles in Bollywood, Taapsee says, “Let’s just say I have been a small part of this big change. There was a time when I had thoughts of quitting after working for 5-7 years, because that was the shelf-life of a female actor. Today, I am certain I’ll keep working as long as good work keeps coming. So that’s a change I’ve witnessed in front of me.” 

Mission Mangal is scheduled for release tomorrow. The film also stars Sonakshi Sinha, Kirti Kulhari, Sharman Joshi and HG Dattatreya.

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